Recent events at the CBC and the Liberal Party of Canada have, once again, brought to light the age-old problem of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the workplace.
Although the most serious allegations levelled against Jian Ghomeshi, relate to his off-work activities, several people have since come forward with their own accounts of Ghomeshi’s misconduct that took place at the CBC. According to recent reports, we now know that there were many stories floating around the organization of Ghomeshi’s questionable dealings with female (and male) interns, subordinates, and the like, during the course of his career with the CBC. It appears to be have been common knowledge among staff and management, that Ghomeshi acted inappropriately in his relationships with women both at work and in his private life.
Many Canadians who are following the Ghomeshi story, are wondering the same thing: how can a company like the CBC be so out of touch when it comes to the serious issue of workplace harassment, and sexual harassment. Indeed, around two years ago, complaints were received by CBC’s management from a staff member who raised concerns about Ghomeshi’s conduct. Like many companies, however, the CBC chose not to open an investigation or take any further steps to address what was perhaps a serious human rights violation. One has to wonder why the CBC, and countless other Canadian companies, are not reading the ‘writing on the wall’ when it comes to all types of harassment in the workplace.
A few possible reasons come to mind:
- Many experts suggest that the traditional notions of what constitutes appropriate language and relations in the workplace have changed, thus making it more difficult for employers to evaluate behaviour. Thanks, in large part to the internet, sex has become increasingly intertwined with pop culture, humour, and general social norms; as a result, the line separating what might be sexually inappropriate comments and gestures, from what our society considers to be acceptable workplace banter, has been blurred. In addition, an employer would be hard-pressed to find two employees who share the same views on what can properly be classified as harassment in the workplace;
- Another reason might be that a company’s management is either explicitly or implicitly condoning harassment within their own workplaces, or is even the perpetrator of the harassment. It is no surprise that, as leaders, management sets the tone for the rest of the staff when it comes to everything from performance to general workplace culture and environment. In many cases, management has become far too immersed in its own toxic work environment to identify and address issues of harassment among staff members; or,
- Few employers have the time or the desire to become police officers over their organizations, and they certainly do not want to play the psychologist. Determining what behaviour amounts to harassment, and then properly dealing with it, is becoming increasingly difficult and time-consuming. Most small to midsize companies in Canada, simply do not have the benefit of a full-time HR person to manage the so-called ‘soft’ side of the business.
Whatever the reason for a company’s apathy towards workplace harassment, the end result is usually the same: the loss of often talented and valuable employees, a souring of workplace culture, and often a very distracting and expensive litigation process. If you ask most employers, the vast majority would say that they would do anything to avoid such a devastating blow to their companies. The surprising fact, however, is that many companies take very few or no proactive steps to protect themselves from these types of problems.
How can companies insulate themselves and their employees from workplace harassment? Employers can take a few simple steps to significantly decrease the risk of running into harassment or other workplace behavioural problems:
- Invest the necessary time and resources into developing a thorough and clear harassment policy;
- Communicate the policy to all staff members;
- Train your staff members on the policy. Do not assume your staff understands or appreciates every aspect of the policy;
- Quickly investigate any complaints that may be covered by the policy; and,
- If a violation of the policy occurs, act swiftly to enforce the policy with warnings, progressive discipline, or termination, should the circumstances warrant it.
In today’s world, companies need a clear and comprehensive harassment policy in place; such a policy must fully set out management’s expectations for how employees should conduct themselves at work. The more detailed, the better. This is a proactive and simple approach to ensuring all staff members are on the same page regarding workplace harassment. Not only do these policies prevent workplace harassment from taking place, but when an incident does occur, they add clarity to the situation for both the employer and the employee. A company that takes these steps can expect to see less harassment issues among its employees, and even fewer cases that lead to litigation.
The difficulty, however, is that just having a policy on the books is not good enough. You can be sure the CBC has a comprehensive harassment policy, among a plethora of other guiding principles-and yet the CBC is in the midst of one of the biggest sexual harassment scandals in recent memory.
It is the employer’s obligation to bring the policy to life through workplace training, timely investigations of any complaints, and swift enforcement of those rules. Employer apathy and procrastination when it comes to workplace harassment is dangerous, and often only leads to further damage both to the workplace and to the company’s legal position. In employment law, there is a legal principle called ‘condonation’, whereby the Courts have held that an employer who chooses not address an employee’s actions i.e. investigate, provide oral or written warnings to the employee, or discipline the employee, cannot subsequently choose to rely on the behaviour as grounds for dismissal. Many employers are shocked to learn that, in addition to having to deal with the fallout from the actual incident of harassment, they also have to defend a wrongful dismissal lawsuit-which there is a good possibility they may lose.
When it comes to workplace harassment, our society is quick to focus on the wrongdoer or the perpetrator; however, many incidents can be traced back to management, including:
A failure to draft and implement appropriate policies;
A failure to identify and investigate complaints at all or in a timely manner; or,
A failure to properly manage incidents of workplace harassment when they arise, including taking all necessary steps to ensure that the harassment stops.
These are straightforward strategies that Canadian employers can no longer ignore given the high-stakes involved. Although unlike the CBC, most companies are not in the public limelight, the financial consequences can be severe for every company that mishandles workplace harassment or bullying.